Sunday, August 31, 2014


In about a week, I will have moved from Provo, UT to Ellensburg, WA. There're a few reasons prompting this move; After doing my undergrad, my wife's undergrad, and my wife's Masters at BYU it's definitely time for a change of scenery. It's a good chance to break out of old college ways and build some new, better habits in a new location. However, the biggest reason, (and the one that answers the question of "why Ellensburg instead of somewhere else?") is that Seattle WA, which is about 2 hours out of Ellensburg, is the world capital for my line of work. Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, a slew of indie companies, and even more video game makers all call the area home, making it the greatest concentration of my peers outside of the yearly Gen Con.  

Every motivational speech you'll ever hear usually talks about taking risks; big risks bring big rewards, you can't know unless you try, etc, etc. What these speeches don't spend time reminding you about is that risks also carry the chance of failure, and often the bigger the risk, the greater the chance of it blowing up in your face. 

Moving to the Northwest without a definite job and only a few contacts in the industry? Big risk. 

Biiiiiiiiig risk.

But it's one I think we have to take. We have a few years break before my wife goes back for her PhD, our kids are still young, and as a small 3rd party developer, there's no where else that will afford me as many opportunities as the Northwest. 

There was a time I took a similar risk. Back when I first graduated from college with my little Music Dance Theater degree, we decided to try our hand at New York. I went out early to try and get established and look for jobs, housing, and everything else my family would need. I even video blogged the experience while I was out there, but in the end it didn't work out and we ended up moving back to Provo.

And now, years later, we're doing it again. I think I'll have to video blog it as well, just for old time's sake.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I am a Perfectionist

I am a Perfectionist. That doesn't mean what I make is perfect, but simply that I have a hard time letting things go when I know they can be better. This is, incidentally, the main reason why Spheres of Power is taking so long; with the way the project grew through Stretch Goals there suddenly became so much more to consider, which meant I kept getting to visit and re-visit the core mechanics and how they interacted with the new stuff. On the bright side this leads to a better book. On the down side this means the wait for the book keeps on growing.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this style of design. Some of my favorite creators have been perfectionists; author Patrick Rothfuss takes so long to write a book that he's famously decreed he will add another week (and I think now it's another year) to the wait time for his next book every time someone asks him how much longer they're going to have to wait, and his books are some of the finest ever written. (seriously, this is not an exaggeration; read "The Name of the Wind".) For the musical-lovers out there, there's a reason Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance routines are still considered some of the greatest ever made.

On the other side, it could be argued that while Patrick Rothfuss is an amazing author, it's this exact problem (taking so long between books) that's keeping him from getting the complete world-wide recognition he deserves. As for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, there are stories about just how horrible they were to work with because of this very quality; they refused to stop until they were completely satisfied.

There's also a financial problem with perfectionism; in an industry that lives as hand-to-mouth as RPG design, perfectionism can keep you from getting a following going; there simply isn't enough products coming out quickly to get people excited for your work.

In the end I can't say whether or not my approach will prove the best one for me, I just know it's how I work. Perhaps it'll kill me, or perhaps it will be worth the wait. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Design Musings: Tabletop RPGs and the Reiteration of Ideas

One of the most interesting things about the tabletop RPG medium is how malleable it is. There are a thousand ways any mechanic, theme, or concept could be iterated, and rules can be made up on the fly to cover any number of situations as they arise. For me, this means that I keep looking at things I've done and asking myself 'how else could I have done this?' Sometimes this becomes a two-edged sword, as it means I'm never quite satisfied with anything I've done (even now, I'm contemplating revisiting all of my old classes and forging new versions of them integrating the new things I've learned since they were written).

This idea of reiteration becomes increasingly important when doing something as all-encompassing as Spheres of Power, and is also one of the reasons why designing this book is taking so much longer than originally anticipated. It's not enough to come up with a single version of these new mechanics, and I keep finding myself going back to the base mechanics again and again, asking myself to come up with new ways it could be done, and then I can take my pick of which variant plays better.

I think it wouldn't be a stretch to say that reiteration to this degree is something completely unique to Tabletop RPGs as an artform: Video games can be remade, or a book or movie can be adapted, but tabletop RPGs can be reimagined on a daily basis, and many games release 2nd, 3rd, or 4th editions of themselves as time and changing audiences alter the way the game is played.

Even Pathfinder, which famously has declared it doesn't like and hopes not to need a Second Edition does this; FAQs give updates on dealing with questionable mechanics, players come up with new ways of playing the game and post these rules online, and new products 'fix' old mechanics through the power of hindsight (my favorite of these is Kobolds of Golarion and Ranger Traps. I've never seen a player actually use Ranger Traps as they're universally considered underpowered, so KoG introduced a bunch of new, much higher powered versions. Technically it wasn't re-writing the old rules, but it might as well have been for the power change they introduced.)

Right now, I'm revisiting several of the spheres that aren't quite where I want them to be. There's a few places where something is broken in need of fixing, but sometimes it's about delving in deep and asking myself how a sphere feels, how it works as a playstyle, and if there's a version that not only would play better, but simply be more fun. Of course I'm running out of time and in some cases I just have to solidify things and move on, but the book, and the industry as a whole, is made stronger by reiterating things; it gives us options, and it helps us free ourselves from the belief that in such a malleable medium that there's a right way or wrong way to play the game.

As an industry, we're still under the D&D shadow; the D20 tradition (or F20 tradition as I've heard it called) is built on this reiteration of what, at its heart, is the same game of picking an archetype and going on fantasy adventures involving monsters and treasure. Even D&D itself has just reiterated itself once again, and as an industry we're all sort of waiting to see how this new iteration plays with audiences.

Anyway, that's just my thought for the day. If you'll excuse me, I've got to go and invent a new version of Creation to see how it plays.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Self-Taught Industries

I'm trying to articulate something that's been on my mind lately. It's something that I started thinking about when we started the Spheres of Power kickstarter, grew during LTUE (Life, The Universe, and Everything, the BYU symposium on Sci Fi/Fantasy) and has sort of culminated lately. It's about what it means to be in a creative industry where the professionals are almost completely self-taught.

Tabletop RPGs are at a strange place as an industry. On one hand, it's an industry that can support several major companies and a host of smaller ones. On the other hand, it's still new enough and small enough that, at least to my knowledge, there's no college degree out there in tabletop RPG design. RPGs as we understand them weren't invented until the 70's, and after the initial crop who invented the game, many of the game's great pioneers were players who decided to contribute to their favorite hobby. Many of those pioneers are still major voices in the industry today.

This industry is certainly not the only one to have this unique professional/amateur relationship. I've known several best-selling authors who've argued that aspiring writers shouldn't bother getting a degree in Creative Writing and that doing so can actually be counter-intuitive to being a good writer. I've also known several stage directors that have complained about actors who've spent so much time in acting school that have a hard time relating to- and therefore playing- ordinary people. 

The thought that's been developing in my mind that I wanted to share, though, is that I think sometimes people take this 'formal education isn't required' thing and assume it means NO education is required. Few things could be further from the truth: Brandon Sanderson worked as an editor of a fiction magazine in college and wrote over half a dozen books before finally getting one published, and I once heard David Farland go through his study process before he began writing, and it involved dissecting novels with an almost clinical academia. Even those afore-mentioned RPG pioneers, the ones who's industry didn't even EXIST until 40 years ago usually had degrees in business, journalism, or an extensive background in other games before they got involved in the RPG scene.

Perhaps I'm conflating education and experience, but when you're dealing with a self-taught industry the two are usually one and the same. It's why the Writing Excuses podcast releases writing advice every week, and at least 1 in 5 of that given advice boils down to "go practice more." 

As the owner of a small RPG business, I've found there are lots of people that either want to ask me how they can break into the industry as well (since I did it so recently ago) or want to talk about the RPG they hope to publish one day. In both cases, my first response is to ask them about their education. What have they read? What have they written? What have they done that could convince a publisher, buyer, or kickstarter backer that they can, in fact, do what they claim they want to do? There have been times I've even thrown small projects at these people, just to see what they could do. More often than not, I never got anything more than a few unusable paragraphs back or some sort of excuse; often they didn't know what to do when actually given a chance to design.

When I got my start in designing, I knew I had no qualifications to speak of. Yes I studied novel writing with Brandon Sanderson, but most of my time had been spent studying acting, and while I'd played tabletop RPGs since I was small, my brothers did most of the GMing. What I did have, though, was the internet; I read everything I could find by different designers about their process and work, and I wikipedia'd a bunch of companies to get a sense for how they got started. I read Paizo books, 3rd Party Publishers, famous RPGs, obscure RPGs, and everything else I could find to get a sense for what separated good products from mediocre ones. My collection got pretty extensive. I knew I had little experience in running a business and putting books together, so I started small and tried to published products quickly, and every mistake I made along the way I analyzed to help me learn what I didn't know that I didn't know. I can say with confidence that I'm better now than I was only a few months ago, and I was better then than I was last year. 

I guess what I'm getting at is there's always a chance to learn, and in an industry like this one you learn by doing. That doesn't mean you have to hunt down publishers right now to get a gig, but you need to be doing something right now to prepare for that gig - writing societies, coming up with new archetypes, doing SOMETHING so that when you do get that chance you A. have something in your bag you can show them, and B., know enough about the industry that you can create whatever's asked of you. Knowing who to talk to or where to send your manuscripts is secondary; if you're work isn't practiced and polished enough to impress, it's not going to get published no matter who sees it. I'm a firm dis-believer in Auteur theory; there's no mythical creativity that you either have or you don't; it all comes down to practice and study, and sometimes doing it badly is a prerequisite to learning to do it well.

Perhaps that's not nearly as profound as I'm making it sound. I hope so. Like lots of others in this field I love watching new people get involved, especially since I'm so new myself. The industry may be small (relatively speaking) but its growing, and it will only continue to grow so long as new voices are constantly being added to the mix.

And I, for one, would love to see this industry boom.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Creative Play, or The New-Old School

Recently, I was asked by a professor at BYU to run a gaming session for some of his students. The class is on the theory of Games and Play, and as their homework for next class they need to play a tabletop RPG. I agreed and, not wanting to overwhelm the (most likely) newbie students with a lot of rules, sent them a link to the Swords and Wizardry SRD and sat down to read one of their published modules in preparation.

As I've gone over in some previous posts, I love old-school gaming. I love hiring henchmen, I love finding creative ways to beat or escape from unstoppable monsters, I love 10-ft poles, and I love having to fast-talk the guard, find the secret door, and disarm the trap all without a roll of the dice.

The thing is, I also love modern gaming; I love calculating builds, I love difficult tactical combats, I love investing in the story of a character, and I love using a host of powers to turn the tide of a critical fight.

As I read Bill Webb's introduction to the module and read his discussion of how he runs his games at home, I realized something: Spheres of Power is a personal attempt to marry the two.

Old-School gaming is not just about being rules-light; it's about rewarding player creativity. Players jam doors with metal spikes, use 10-foot poles to prod the dungeon floor, and use complicated rope tricks to get from point A to point B across any obstacle. Heck, some creative uses of abilities became so standard they were even codified in later editions (In the 2nd Edition Handbook, the Light spell gave directions for how to use the spell to light up someone's eyes to blind them, as this creative use of the spell become so popular it was practically standard use.)

Being a Pathfinder supplement first, Spheres of Power codifies its rules in a very modern-game sort of way, detailing everything it can for complicated builds and tactical combats, but as I do more and more development on it, the more I'm realizing I keep erring on the side of encouraging player creativity and open-ended mechanics, in a way that feels very Old-School to me. I may have used Pathfinder spells as bench-marks in the beginning, but more and more as I write and re-write the spheres and talents, I keep moving away from distinct packaged powers and more towards power-based guidelines.

Just yesterday, I sat down with the Warp sphere and realized that some of the talent divisions felt too spell-like to me; one talent (Call Object) for summoning an object to one's hand, but another (micro-portal) for using a readied action to grab a projectile out of the air. This division would make sense if I were writing spells, but logically speaking, if you can already call an object to your side, why couldn't you grab an arrow out of the air? I mulled it over; a clever player would use Call Object to grab a projectile and I'd certainly let him do it, but by having a talent dedicated to the maneuver, the Exclusion Principle ("if you need a feat to perform an action, you therefore can't perform that action without the feat") seemed to say it wasn't how the power was 'supposed' to be used. In the end, I cut the projectile-focused talent and added a mention to Call Object detailing how to use it on objects in the air.

The great, and also strange, thing about the F20 tradition (games involved in, or evolved from, D&D) is the subtle shift each mechanical variant brings to the game; there are a million versions of the same fantasy theme, and each one fits a little better, or a little worse, into each individual playstyle. As for the particular way the Spheres adjusts playstyle, only more development, playtests, and backer's surveys will determine how and how well this adjustment plays, but development always goes a little better when one has a philosophical goal to aim for and the New-Old School sounds like a good goal to me.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Caster Level vs Talent Sinks

In the basic Pathfinder magic system, there are two ways to guage the power of a spell; the spell's level, and the caster level of the spell-user. In Spheres of Power, we also have two ways of guaging power level; caster level, and the number of talents applied to the effect. Usually, there are only so many talents that can be applied to a single effect; with the Destruction sphere, after you've gained about 3 talents, taking more talents in that sphere increases versatility but not necessarily power. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: conjuring and healing

In Pathfinder core, healing is a specialized job that requires serious investment. I've seen Alchemists and Bards who had the 'primary healing' job, and had to spend so much of their time healing they could use their spells for virtually nothing else. The Cleric of course has the most powerful healing abilities, but pays for that by having a much more limited capacity for blasting, controlling, and creating other effects. The wizard, as the great counter-example, has all sorts of potential spells and effects, but in exchange has virtually no healing powers. The balance concern is that if a single caster could both heal as well as a Cleric and do battle as well as a Wizard, they'd simply be too powerful of a caster and would lessen the chances his teammates have to shine. Since the Spheres of Power system currently has no restrictions on which class can take which sphere, the question becomes how to balance these sets of powers, and make sure the game doesn't become unhinged when any caster can become a healer if they should so choose.

Currently, our plan is to make healing a greater talent sink than the other spheres- while a higher caster level helps, the real way to increase the healing you can provide is by spending more talents on the sphere, gaining more or less an extra d8 of healing per talent spent. Thus, if a caster only wants to sink a couple talents into healing, his healing won't be nearly as effective, especially at higher levels. On the other hand, a mid or low caster willing to spend the talents can indeed become the party's main healer, doing things only the Cleric could do in the base system.

The other great talent sink system is conjuring. I've known a few GMs for whom conjuring was a bit of a sore spot; they'd had so many newer players grind the game to a halt as they looked up which monster to summon and figured out what they could do, and too many experienced players who'd used the spell-like abilities of summoned monsters to double their spell output and destroy all sense of game balance and team tactics.

Thus, we've also given conjuring a talent-sink system; full-casters will be able to summon more powerful creatures of course, but if a caster is only willing to spend a talent or two on the conjuration sphere, he'll have little more than a single weak ally, good for soaking up hits or setting up flanks, but little else. A dedicated summoner, however, can become a walking army, sinking their talents into summoning more creatures or giving a summoned ally even more power. It isn't inconceivable that a caster could sink each and every one of his talents into the conjuration sphere, but doing so will require that player to keep their bookkeeping under control and keep the game from stopping while rules are checked and stats are calculated.

By making these spheres talent-sinks, we've severely limited the amount of power a caster can wield by spending a few talents on the spheres. On the other hand, a player can still turn these spheres into the focuses of his build, he just has to be willing to spend the talents to become good at it. Is it the best way to handle these situations? I don't know; only playtesting and trying a few alternate methods can fully reveal that. But they're systems we're currently looking in to to see how they work alongside the other spheres. As always, feedback is appreciated as we see how these concepts work in action.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Those Twin Beasts: Balance and Versatility

There are two goals that every Pathfinder designer strives for when making new player content, particularly classes; balance and versatility. If you look closely, I bet almost all player complains (or at least most the ones I've read on the forums) come down to not being happy with the interplay of these two ideas.

Making a class balanced, and making a class versatile, sounds like a straight-forward concept, yet it can get bogged down pretty quickly when it comes to the specifics of individual playstyle. The fighter, for example, is supposed to represent the height of in-combat versatility, yet all it takes is a game more focused on dialogue and skill checks to make that player feel useless. Likewise the Rogue, considered by many to be the height of out-of-combat versatility, can find herself very un-versatile in practice, as many players feel the need to dedicate all those skill points to only traditional thieving pursuits (stealth, sleight of hand, disable device, etc.,) and in a combat-focused game the rogue often finds herself reduced to being a one-trick pony (flank enemy, sneak attack, rinse and repeat.)

So when you're throwing out something as big as the magic rules themselves and building them again from the ground up, balance and versatility become all-mportant, yet also very elusive beasts. How powerful is too powerful? How focused is too focused? And how will these ideas interact with a variety of playstyles, some of which you might not even have experienced yet?

We're almost at the point with the Spheres of Power classes where we can't improve on them anymore until they've been through a bit more focused and rigorous playtesting. And as I look down at our work, I find myself asking why we made the choices we did, especially as they relate to those classes that mechanically or thematically favor one sphere over another. Why is this class a mid-caster, while this other one is a high-caster? And how do we decide how many talents to give them?

In some cases, we give different classes different balancing systems not because they couldn't use the same mechanics, but so we can see each possible system in play together to compare and contrast the different options. So partially for my own benefit and partially for the benefit of anyone who wants to see inside a designer's head, I wanted to go over why we've made the choices we've made with some of our specialists, as we take these classes from the drawing board to the gaming table to see how they work.

The Elementalist: The elementalist is a combat specialist, pure and simple. With class features that improve the Destruction sphere, the elementalist is a blaster's dream. And so, as we set about balancing it, we decided to give it a low number of talents (only 10 by level 20) and a bonus combat feat every 4 levels. The Destruction sphere doesn't require many talents to be useful (it stops progressing in power after about 4, and after that simply makes the blaster more versatile,) so the class has everything it needs built in, covering the basic combat feats and destruction talents any good blaster needs to do his job.

The versatility, then, comes from the fact that despite its low number of talents, it is a High-Caster. With the basics covered by the class itself, players are freed to spend their feats however they want, using them for skill bonuses, defense, or new magic spheres which it can use with the same caster level as a dedicated Thaumaturge.

The Eliciter: The eliciter (formally the emophet of my previous post,) is just as dedicated as the elementalist, but to a different concept entirely; persuasion. She treats herself as a High-Caster for the Mind sphere and only the Mind sphere (being a mid-caster for all others,) and gains bonuses to the DCs of his Mind sphere abilities and class feature abilities, which include a choice of different emotions she can manipulate with a touch.

In the Eliciter's case, versatility comes from the fact that her class's focus is so strong, it actually doesn't need that much more work to hit what one might call 'top possible power-level.' Her class features and the Mind sphere do the same thing, so if the player decides to dedicate her talents to the Mind sphere, she can then dedicate her emotion abilities to those that provide benefits in combat (granting rage or better roles to allies.) Likewise, if the eliciter chooses emotions that relate to charm or fear, she can use her magic talents to branch out into other spheres, picking up destruction, illusion, healing, or whatever other Sphere abilities she chooses. Of course the eliciter could choose to dedicate both emotion and talents to mind-control, but she will quickly hit the point where such focus doesn't make her better at persuasion, just more focused.

The Symbiat: A psyonicist, the symbiat gains the mind and telekinesis spheres as bonus spheres at first level, and gains class features that at least thematically related to telepathy and telekinesis. However, I recently decided that rather than be a high-caster for the mind and telekinesis spheres and a mid-caster for all others, the symbiat should simply be a mid-caster for all spheres.

This is because, while the symbiat needs to possess the mind and telekinesis spheres for thematic purposes, mechanically he's not actually tied to either. A symbiat could choose to ignore those spheres entirely and focus on Destruction, Nature, or anything else he chooses. Thus, while a symbiat could easily be the party's dedicated telekinesis and mind expert, there was no reason to incentivise him to take that route (read: punish him for choosing any others) and doing anything else felt like we were actively trying to discourage creativity in player builds.

There is one more class we're working on; a shapeshifter (name pending) focused on the alteration sphere. I find myself reflecting on these other three classes, because the answer to how to do the shapeshifter is not quite as apparent as with the other three; shapeshifters can be so many things to so many people (front-line fighters, infiltrators, and if going for a Druid-esque focus, casters as well,) that finding out how exactly to grant that versatility can be daunting. Do we make him a high-caster and give him lots of magic talents so players can diversify that way? Do we give the class specific mechanics that allow it to accomplish all three ideas well, thus freeing players up to diversify with feats as we did with the elementalist? Or do we do something else entirely?

My hope is to have the classes all finished by the end of this week and release them for general playtesting on Monday. If all goes well, I'll be curious to see how players react to these different approaches to balance and versatility, and see if one stands out as a favorite, and if any of them need to go back to the drawing board.